“We can hear the owner’s sad story once more about his lack of money to fix the massive health and quality of life problem he created; we can hear about his phantom buyer, but what we are not going to hear is that the owner is going to take full responsibility for the mess he made.”
Ad hoc committee member Margarita Araiza
This is not a news story. It is an opinion piece on the two-decade saga of the fate of the old Mercy Hospital campus in the Heights, Chendo Carranco’s decrepit, code violating private property that by his failure to care for it has insinuated itself into City government.
I begin by stipulating that criticism is not intended toward Andrew Carranco — the young son of Chendo Carranco — who does his father’s bidding at public meetings regarding the public health nuisance of the old hospital structures at 1600 Logan Street.
Andrew Carranco takes punches meant for his father, and his willingness to do so is Carranco family business.
Inescapably, however, because that degraded piece of privately owned real estate is now part of City business, some are witness to the disconcerting public matter of a good young man running a bad errand.
Andrew Carranco is known to lend his energies to good projects that enrich the cityscape. Holding the line for his father on this property now in heated public debate is not one of them.
The debacle of the elder Carranco’s 18-year inertia to secure his District III property against vandals and vagaries of weather has transformed his investment into a monolithic eyesore and a public nuisance. The safety hazards posed by the structure have been an ongoing concern for neighboring residents who have seen their property values plummet.
Alongside Carranco the Elder’s two decades of negligence to safeguard his property and to keep it from violating City building and nuisance ordinances, runs an equally inexplicable and egregious parallel tale of negligence and dereliction of duty — that of a City that issued no violations on the state of the old hospital until July 20, 2017.
With its unsecure perimeter fencing, gaping broken windows, and visible neglect, the hospital has become of late a locale for vandals to set fires (three since August 27).
Driving past that site, I wade through a myriad of questions, among them:
- If you were the owner of a piece of property you wanted to sell for $7 million, why would you let its stewardship slide into its current deterioration?
- What shielded Carranco from City citations and fines for almost 20 years?
- How is it possible that the first citation ever issued by the City for the hospital property was done so on June 20, 2017?
- How did Carranco’s unfortunate real estate investment become the City’s problem?
- Why does the City want to spend about $25,000 on a Laredo Housing Authority (LHA) study to determine whether the privately owned asbestos-coated hospital in such a state of deterioration can be transformed into affordable housing?
HOW THE OLD MERCY HOSPITAL BECAME THE CITY’S PROBLEM
Every taxpayer-funded entity that has considered the purchase of the hospital building from 1999 forward — even when the lights were on and the elevators and HVAC worked —turned it down at $3 million and then its reduced price of $1.5 million. Does there exist a buyer who would pay $7 million for a looted hulk of a building wearing the shroud of blight, dry weeds, and broken windows as its curb appeal, and would that buyer pour millions more into reconfiguring the space into something usable?
Not likely, but your City government — despite disavowing an interest in buying the property — might surprise you, now saying it wants to spend $25,000 of your money for an assessment to determine if this privately owned property can be of use for affordable housing.
Why not consider inquiring for the purpose of affordable housing the other old historic hotel downtown (currently a bank building) that still has its windows and copper plumbing intact and doesn’t smell like guano?
Take a moment to consider how Chendo Carranco’s eight square blocks on the highest hill in the Heights became an issue that now consumes the time of City employees and staff. Carranco’s failure to maintain his buildings and property violated City ordinances on so large a scale that the surrounding neighborhood complained both to Code Enforcement and to the Laredo City Council. His repeated failure to respond with corrective action morphed his debacle of inertia into a matter the City now has to address.
If you want to start running a tip-of-the-iceberg tab on what Carranco’s lack of civic responsibility has cost, factor in the cost of the attendance of City staff at the meetings of the Council-appointed ad hoc committee for the old Mercy Hospital. That would be an assistant City manager, three department heads, and several Code Enforcement employees. Consider their time beyond the meetings as they wrestle with the health and safety issues surrounding the hospital and as they try to resolve one man’s unwillingness to take responsibility for his own property.
Factor in the cost of police and fire department responses to fires set at the abandoned, unsecured property on August 27, 29, and 30, and 15 other calls before that.
Factor in the plummet in property values for the surrounding neighborhood. Factor in the anxiety of living in sight of a multi-storied building that is home to rats, bats, and other vermin and that gives vandals safe haven for a place to play and start fires.
Factor in the time of the five citizens appointed to the ad hoc committee, and don’t forget the $25K the LHA will spend on its study. And that’s just for starters. Legal staff will write and execute MOUs, and depending on the findings of the LHA assessment, the City will probably order an expensive appraisal, one specifically for aged hospital structures.
THE AUGUST 29 AD HOC COMMITTEE MEETING
Members of the City Council-appointed ad hoc committee have met several times over the summer to eventually make their best recommendation to the Council for what should be done with the old hospital. In discussions with City officials they have continued to address the code and building violations and Carranco’s slow, often non-existent corrective responses.
The committee’s August 29 meeting was attended by its five appointees — chair person Louis La Vaude, an attorney and members Jennifer Roby, a professional counselor; Margarita Araiza, director of a local non-profit; Cristobal Rodriguez, a businessman; and Frank Saldaña, an attorney. Also in attendance were assistant City manager Cindy Collazo; City department heads John Porter of Environmental Services, Ramon Chavez of Building Development Services, and Arturo García of Community Development; and Felipe Aguilar of Code Enforcement.
In the public comment part of the meeting, Laredoan Imelda Rodriguez cautioned against using public money to bail out a private interest, calling such a measure an “abuse of power.”
Realtor George Rodriguez said the high visibility of the eyesore has affected the sale of nearby properties, their values, and their contribution to the tax base.
Melissa Cigarroa, whose family home is a scant City block from the hospital site, addressed recent fires at the hospital, calling the situation “extremely dangerous” and noting that a day care center is located directly across the street from the abandoned hospital.
The committee members imposed a March 31, 2018 deadline for Carranco’s compliance with recent code enforcement citations to board-up broken windows, remove accumulations of trash and rubbish, to keep the site mowed, and to construct a perimeter fence that actually keeps vandals from the property.
Committee member Roby noted that the seven months between now and March 31 was far more time than other citizens are allowed to remedy code violations. “I am fearful for the people who live around there. This is seven more months of anxiety,” she said.
Committee member Araiza said she would agree to the March 31 deadline if compliance was met incrementally.
Chavez agreed, adding that the Building Services department needed to see improvements in order to justify not writing new citations.
Andrew Carranco estimated that there were about 300 windows that needed to be boarded up.
“Start with five,” Chavez suggested.
The hospital owner is being fined $2,000 a week for 18 different violations for an unsafe substandard building and for property maintenance codes.
Member Saldaña reminded the committee that cutting weeds, repairing fences, and removing trash would “not abate the nuisance.” The nuisance, he said, is that the building in such dangerous disrepair is there at all.
“I’m talking about the abatement of a nuisance, not just boarding windows and cutting weeds,” he stressed, adding, “The March 31 deadline is for the abatement of the nuisance,” Saldaña said. “Complete compliance by March 31 or face the commencement of administrative or legal action,” he added.
“In that case,” Carranco challenged, “Be clear that you want it torn down. City Council has other intentions.” He added, “I’m afraid of what this committee decides,” he said warily.
When La Vaude said that failure to address code and building violations could lead to legal action that ordered the owner to demolish the building, Carranco said, “If I had the money to demolish the building, I would have already.” Carranco’s estimate for demolition is $5 million. And though Carranco said he favors demolition, he has also reportedly told the ad hoc committee he has a buyer whose name he cannot reveal.
“This committee can only make recommendations to the City Council. We are not a legislative body that can impose deadlines, but we won’t be kicking the can down the road. That won’t be our recommendation,” La Vaude told Carranco.
Addressing Carranco, Saldaña said that if the building came under compliance, “We couldn’t tell you to tear it down.” A signed earnest money contract for the sale of the property from a buyer capable of performing a purchase, Saldaña added, “would give you some time.”
La Vaude asked Carranco for environmental, demolition, and structural reports for the property, to which Carranco referenced “having to find them in boxes.”
THE PROPOSED LAREDO HOUSING AUTHORITY PROJECT SITE ANALYSIS
Community Development director Arturo García framed the funding for the proposed $25,000 Laredo Housing Authority study for the hospital as “cost sharing with City money and taxpayer money.” He said the purpose of the study was “to find out if there is any potential for the building.”
La Vaude voiced his opposition to another study. “It’s a foolish thing. When you don’t know what to do, you do a study. A study is kicking the can down the road,” he interjected.
Collazo said that in order for the LHA to move forward with its assessment, it would need signatures on a three-party MOU with the City and with Carranco.
“Mr. Carranco would need to agree to give us access to the property. If the building has potential within cost, there could be money found,” she said.
The LHA/MOU will appear on the September 5 City Council agenda.
POLITICS TO BLAME FOR FAILURE TO SELL?
At the recent ad hoc committee meeting, Andrew Carranco blamed politics for his father’s failed opportunities to sell the building in the past to Webb County, LISD, LCC, and more recently the City.
That may be partially true, but it was likely politics, too, that allowed the elder Carranco to skate across the wide expanse of political Teflon accorded contributors to political campaigns locally and elsewhere. Carranco, a CPA and a developer, has served as treasurer of U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar’s re-election committee since 2003.
District III City Council member Alex Perez said he looks to Congressman Cuellar as the harbinger of a possible solution for what will become of the offending decrepit structure. “He is coming down here for a roundtable to see if he can guide us to some federal money,” he said,
Though Perez has gone on record favoring demolition of the old hospital, he spoke animatedly of being on “big conference calls with the EPA, HUD, and a handful of other federal folks to explore options for the use of the building.”
Perez said he will host a meeting with neighborhood residents “in the next couple of months” to roll out “as many options as possible.”
Assistant City manager Collazo said the conference calls to which Perez referred were monthly conversations that have also included representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Veterans Administration, and the Economic Development Administration.
“We would have to own the building for any one or more of those agencies to give us funds,” Collazo pointed out as she stressed that the LHA assessment was not an indicator that the City wanted to buy the property.
Fresh from an August 30 meeting with City staff and management and ad hoc committee chair La Vaude, Perez said he was mindful that Carranco “has not always worked with the City,” an understatement about a wealthy property owner who has operated as though his health hazard, nuisance-riddled real estate eyesore exists in a vacuum and not in the populated neighborhood of one of the City’s older sectors.
He added, “Any options we present to the neighborhood and the Council have to make economic sense.” He said he expects that “public perception and politics will play a role” in determining the structure’s fate.
SHORING UP PERCEPTIONS – DISGRACEFUL AND SHAMEFUL
And speaking of perceptions, try to line up Carranco’s neglect for the old hospital and the sales pitch on his website:
“In the heart of Laredo, Texas, nestled in the geographic center of Laredo, in the historic Heights District, reverently sits the ‘Heart and Soul’ of the neighborhood
and of Laredo as a whole: the former Mercy Hospital Building…….sitting on the
highest hill in Laredo, far out of the 100 year flood plane (sic), the building occupies the highest location on the Laredo skyline. Reviving the structure will not only bring
to life one of the most treasured icons of our city, but it will rejuvenate and enliven one of our most distinguished neighborhoods.”
Committee member Araiza, who lives a block from the hospital, called the sales pitch “disgraceful and shameful.”
FIRE CALLS AT MERCY
The Laredo Fire Department responded to fire calls at the hospital on August 27, 29, and 30. Fire Chief Steve Landin said there have been 18 calls to the site since 2001 — two for grass fires, five for building fires, three for trash fires, and eight for police and EMS calls. A July 20 EMS call was for injuries to a suspected window breaker.
Fires inside the building would likely be contained by the building itself, however, airborne asbestos released by a fire and fumes from burning man-made building materials could be hazardous to residents of the neighborhood.
After the August 29 meeting, La Vaude commented, “The City has the responsibility to address the impact of the hospital on the citizens of the neighborhood. This committee’s responsibility is to come up with its best recommendation for a property for which we have no specific need or use. I don’t want to see another Canseco House fiasco.”
“That meeting was the first we heard of the Laredo Housing Authority study and the need for an MOU. More than another study, we need really clear talk between the City Council and the owner,” said committee member Araiza.
“The owner is saying he has no money to correct the serious violations of code and ordinance or to demolish the building, but he does say he has some nebulous unidentified buyer. Let’s hear about that. Where is the property listed for sale?” Araiza asked.
She said the choices have narrowed for the City.
“As it has become painfully clear, Mr. Carranco is obviously not going to do anything. Is the City’s choice to spend millions to buy private property and solve Mr. Carranco’s problems for him? Or is it to deal forcefully and quickly with condemnation and all the costs associated with that? In either case, the City accepts the burden of Mr. Carranco’s dangerous negligence and the taxpayer pays for it. In the end the City will do what it wants to do. Will the City knock it down and explore alternative uses for the property, or will they decide to save it and use it?”
Of the committee on which she serves, Araiza, the director of the Webb County Heritage Foundation, said, “This committee can only go so far. We are an advisory committee that can issue recommendations for deadlines for compliance. We can hear from the inspectors. We can hear the owner’s sad story once more about his lack of money to fix the massive health and quality of life problem he created not only for the immediate neighborhood, but for the entire City. We can hear about his phantom buyer, but what we are not going to hear is that the owner is going to take full responsibility for the mess he made.”
She observed, “This is a prime example of demolition by neglect.”
Araiza asked, “Shouldn’t there be a consequence to Mr. Carranco if the city is left holding the bill for bailing him out? As a developer who has business with the City, shouldn’t he be placed on some kind of black list and not be allowed to do business in the City again unless he agrees to a repayment schedule? I think people that take the average, law-abiding tax-paying public for a ride, should lose their right/privilege to continue to do business in this community.”
Chair person La Vaude said, “It has become apparent that the City and the ad hoc committee have different points of view about the old Mercy Hospital. The City sees demolition as a last resort. We see it as a remedy. The City wants to explore housing — affordable housing, veterans housing, assisted living housing. I can tell you if that happens in that building, there won’t be anything affordable about it.”
According to La Vaude, “No school system or higher education entity has an interest in repurposing it. About half of the folks we have talked to want the building gone and a park in its place.”
He said that property owner Carranco has been uncooperative and that his asking price for the building is unreasonable.
“I think that when Council appointed this committee, they might have thought we would rubberstamp matters and take our lead from Council member Perez,” he continued.
“Unbeknownst to the ad hoc committee, before our second meeting, there was a meeting to work out the LHA/MOU business with Perez, Carranco, Mr. Ceballos from the LHA, and Arturo García from Community Development,” he said. “We should have known about that meeting and been part of it.”
He continued, “While we are here working to give our best, most prudent recommendation to protect taxpayers, the city has an agenda that it is not sharing with us. I see their plan as a way to grab federal money. I don’t think that’s what this is about. We’ve taken our charge very seriously. We have looked at every option, we have listened, and our report to City Council will be very frank and will probably have information they don’t want to hear. One thing they will hear clearly is that the public does not want taxpayer money to bail out private property.”
La Vaude said the committee is on record to call the LHA assessment “a waste of time.”
The Sisters of Mercy Take Issue with the Besmirching of their Good Name
“It was a good building when we left for the new hospital in 1999. We left because we were landlocked and we wanted to offer private rooms with individual bathrooms and some comfort for the visiting families,” recalled Sister Rosemary Welsh, a nurse and a member of the Sisters of Mercy for the last five decades. “Everything in the Logan Street building worked back then — elevators and all infrastructure. Mr. Carranco bought a sound building. Many of us, not just the sisters, but also the doctors, nurses, technicians, and staff had put years of sweat and tears into that building. It represented more than four decades of Laredo’s medical history and the history of new lives coming into the world,” she said.
Citing the grassroots community effort to help fund the construction of the Logan Street facility, Sister Rosemary said the hospital was built to endure. “The Sisters of Mercy had scrimped and saved to make the hospital possible. In its best days, the hospital also represented the good intentions and selfless work of many to provide health care for all Laredoans. I don’t understand how Mr. Carranco has let something so valuable go the way of neglect. And not just neglect, but of creating a hazard that besmirches the good name of the Sisters of Mercy every time it is referred to as ‘old Mercy Hospital,’” she continued, adding that the hospital had been offered to Webb County before Carranco bought it in 2000.
“Some people think we still own it and are responsible for its deplorable condition today. Don’t blame the Sisters of Mercy,” she said. “We were happy and sad to leave the old hospital for the move to the new. We were leaving so much history and many good memories. Sister Adele encouraged us, telling us, ‘On with the new.’ The Sisters of Mercy were invited to Laredo in 1894 to organize health care in Laredo,” she said.